Seniors' last standFor four members of the Duke women's basketball team, this year's NCAA tournament is the beginning of the end of a long journey.
The Blue Devil seniors have one final opportunity to reach a Final Four—something they have yet to accomplish in their collegiate careers. Although the four—guards Tricia Liston and Chelsea Gray and forwards Haley Peters and Richa Jackson—have become the cornerstone of the Duke program during their four years in Durham, each year has ended just shy of a chance to compete for a national championship.
With three ACC championships and three Elite Eight appearances, the Blue Devil seniors have proven to be one of the most talented and decorated classes in the country during their four-year careers. Despite all the acclaim they have brought to the program, falling just short has been a theme for the seniors in their four years.
Injuries have consistently hampered the success of this Blue Devil class, especially during the past two years, as Gray has been sidelined for the final portions of both seasons due to injury. This season Duke has had to adjust to not only the loss of Gray, but also that of star sophomore guard Alexis Jones. With both Jones and Gray out of action, the Blue Devils have been forced to play without a traditional point guard.
Imperfection has become a reality that this class has had to face, and according to head coach Joanne P. McCallie, that makes their impact on the program that much greater.
"They’ve been incredible from day one—in recruiting them, in coming to Duke, and their dreams at Duke, things they’ve wanted to accomplish, all the Elite Eight performances and championships," McCallie said. "There’s just so much that they’ve done. What’s interesting is I think this year might be the biggest year for learning what sports is all about. I mean that’s the irony of it. It hasn’t been perfect."
Ranked in the preseason as the No. 2 team in the country, Duke was expected by many to compete for a national title against defending champion, and top-ranked, Connecticut. The Blue Devils earned their high ranking on the pedigree of the five returning seniors who guided the program to an Elite Eight loss to Notre Dame the year before.
However, the Blue Devils watched as injuries, a transfer and a dismissal diminished the ranks from 14 to eight scholarship players available. With such a short bench, Duke has struggled to compete with top programs in the country, falling in the rankings after losses to Connecticut and Notre Dame, among others.
Faced with an NCAA regional bracket that includes the top-ranked Huskies, the road to the Final Four will not be an easy one. Connecticut defeated the Blue Devils by 22 points in December when Gray and Jones were both still healthy.
All this adversity has done is fuel and further educate Duke's underclassmen to play for their senior mentors.
"After every game, every loss, every tight moment, you can hear Tricia, Richa, and Haley just reminding us of their past experiences," freshman Oderah Chidom said. "Whenever we face adverse situations, they’re always giving us their insight. Just hearing them all the time, constantly and also knowing that it’s their last year, how they’ve put so much into this program, you almost kind of want to do it [reach the Final Four] for them."
The experience of being challenged to win and having to overcome injuries and losses throughout their careers has made this senior class comfortable with playing one game at a time. The seniors have become experts at focusing on the task at hand without getting distracted by Final Four aspirations.
"I think that what this group has learned is that sometimes things don’t happen the way you want them to," McCallie said. "Sometimes there’s not a glorious finish with everyone doing great and healthy.... I think this group is very good at staying in the moment. I don’t think we’re talking about finish. We’re talking about playing Winthrop, getting our mind set for that and just being very aggressive for that."
Although that one-game focus had become a trademark of the Duke program, three years of losing right before reaching their ultimate goal has left the seniors with regrets they hope to resolve.
National news outlets have consistently discounted the Blue Devils as a national title contender, despite Duke's high seed in each of the past three years' tournaments. The urgency to prove the Blue Devils' worth has put extra pressure on the senior class to reach the Final Four this year.
“You get such a sour taste in your mouth every year, going to the Elite Eight and then it just becomes the reputation of the time,” Peters said. “There are four or five teams every year who have the chance of getting to a Final Four, and you are consistently not one of those teams. Particularly when you know that you should be able to get there. None of us had ever had that experience.”
Legacy may be a topic for post-season banquets, but heading into their final games in a Duke uniform, both Peters and Liston found it difficult to characterize what they hope this final tournament run will mean for their impact on the program.
With ACC championship banners hanging in Cameron Indoor Stadium along with dashed national championship hopes, this core of senior players feels the need to end their Duke careers without regrets. A Final Four appearance would turn this desire into a reality.
“I do not know how much we have thought about our legacy,” Peters said. “We really try to stay in the moment. But I think we have started to shift over toward being the kind of team that Coach P has as her vision of what Duke women’s basketball is—a tough and gritty group that can compete with anybody. We have been trying to do that since I have been here. The next few weeks is the time to cement that."